Took the long way home last weekend. I, for one, think of the place where I grew to adulthood as my hometown and that’s exactly where I was headed—for a 35th year high school reunion.
But I think memories from our early childhood days really are our homes—especially those from the years from which only fuzzy images and other sensory traces remain. The smells of burning leaves, the crunch of the snow under our boots, the vivid colors from tulips that came out in time for last day teacher thank-you gifts, the flashes of electricity that danced across the walls on hot summer evenings, and all the other tactile encounters, pictures, smells, sounds, and tastes that were first part of informing us what the world was.
Whenever I leave behind the city and its suburbs (and now exurbs) and travel east toward what used to be home, I feel an almost primeval relief as the sky opens up. On the way to that hometown get-together, I met with friends to visit another friend at her ranch. As we drove those roads less traveled, that feeling of relief increased as I journeyed deeper into memories I cannot even access but the sensations were oh-so-familiar.
When you grow up in the middle of nowhere, you spend a lot of time driving—either to another spot in the middle of nowhere or to somewhere where you can buy goods you can’t buy at home or where you can do activities not available where you live. Unless weather kept us from the roads, my family and I were often busy going from here to there, more often than not riding roads that were not graded but instead followed the natural contours, my stomach dropping as we swooped from each hilltop to valley and back again.
I got to experience that feeling again once my friend turned her minivan (with us three now city-slickers) onto the one-lane road that stretched north across now-flat, now-rolling terrain. As the car aimed to climb the first hill, I realized the images of hills in my dreams are not some made-up generic picture, but a conglomeration of the hills my family used to drive in my earliest years. The graded and tamed hills of town and city have obscured what I first knew.
This is what I knew: a land of sky and grass and herds of horses and cattle. A space where hawks sat on fence posts while flocks of birds took to flight and various other types of wildlife moved along the periphery of the bubble of our car. I may have grown up a town girl but in a town nestled in the country and arranged around agriculture, not industry.
Childhood as I knew it ended the summer I turned ten when we moved from what I had considered small town paradise to a close-by but larger town. I could no longer ride my bike to the pool or roam the countryside alone for hours or walk either downtown or to the shopping mall where my father now worked. The nearly treeless lawns in our newer neighborhood made me ache for the established leafy maple trees that framed the early 20th century house I had called home for most of my memories. The paved roads stretched flat in every direction—there were no hills to make me wonder if my bike and I could reach the top or gravel roads to ride on school buses while going home to stay with friends who lived in the country. Many of my toys never made it out of the moving boxes. That new town became my hometown at an age when the magic of childhood was waning.
For me—no matter that I experienced all four seasons—childhood in my early town will always be the green, green days of summer when the hours stretched with nothing better to do but splash in the cool wetness provided by the hose or explore the almost cold creek (“crick”) or sit behind our Kool-Aid stand (for which customers??!!) with its sugary sweet smells or pedal that banana-seat Schwinn out onto the not often stationary gravel.
And yet it didn’t have to be summer for me to read—which I did with a passion. Town kid that I was, I devoured every horse book—fiction and nonfiction—I could find in the little local library or that I could con my mom into ordering from the colorful newsprint paperback book orders the teacher dropped onto my desk every month or so. Sure I read of racing horses and London town horses but I preferred tales of horses that roamed in hills that looked more similar to those around my town.
So it came to pass that this small reunion that I got to experience was much more than a chance to talk and laugh and renew friendships with people whom I have missed for too long. No, “meanwhile back at the ranch,” as we made certain to say frequently, I had a reunion with the child I was—as well as the one I wished I was.
Not only has this summer been green at a level not too often duplicated—and the lands that sit on a sweet spot over the massive Ogallala Aquifer are especially green this year—but I also got to return to hills similar to those in my dreams and to achieve proximity to horses in a manner that had only happened in my dreams.
Urban woman I still am and still want to remain, but, please—no apologies for the early morning sun that streamed into the windows of the room where I lay sleeping. I had a room with a view—of fields gilded with dawn—and of the country girl who is also very much a part of me—even after all these years.